‘It’s a lot of shit to be dumped on you,
when you’re just trying to find your way in the world’
In September 2019, some four million young people in hundreds of cities around the world joined the School Strike for Climate Action, probably the largest ever student protests. Although the protests attracted countless news stories, we know little about the experiences and struggles of the young people involved in this global movement. What moved them to become involved? What has their involvement meant for them? What are their fears for the future? And how do they cope with them?
Last year I began researching the phenomenon of youth climate activism for a book. The aim was to conduct 50-60 in-depth interviews with young activists in Australia, Europe and North America. The timing turned out to be poor. By August 2020, nations around the world were locked down and young climate activists went into a kind of hibernation. With twenty-two interviews completed, no more activists volunteered.
The book was abandoned, yet the material in the interview transcripts is so rich and so moving that the insights deserve to be known, hence this article. Of the twenty-two activists, twelve are from Australia, seven from Europe and three from the United States. Their ages, in the middle months of 2020, range from 13 to 22. Sixteen are girls or young women. The names of the interviewees and their home towns have been changed where needed, to ensure anonymity.
The influence of the first solitary striker, Greta Thunberg, has been immense. When asked what triggered their involvement in School Strike for Climate, also known as Fridays for Future, most interviewees mentioned her unprompted. In novels, said 17-year-old Sofia from Berlin, it’s always one person making a difference, so Greta’s lone protest was inspiring. She went to the first rally in March 2019, where only a few hundred gathered; but by September 2019 over a million turned out across Germany.
Isla (18), from the Midlands, UK, expressed the sentiments of many: ‘I honestly can’t even describe what an impact she’s had. … She’s listened to. She gives me a sense of power.’ For 13-year-old Chloe, from a large NSW country town, Greta was an inspiration even though kids at her primary school made fun of Greta’s disability, mimicking the way she speaks. The ‘introverted’ Amy (17, Connecticut) was so moved by Greta that campaigning became ‘my whole world.’
Franklin (18, New York) grew up in China where he believed climate change was a hoax devised by the West to slow down the Chinese economy. When at fourteen he migrated to north America, his mind opened to the evidence. Greta’s singular strike stirred him and when he moved to New York he became active in Fridays for Future.
From Sydney, Louise (16) reminded me that Greta Thunberg’s lone strike was turned into a global movement by ‘group of girls in Castlemaine’ in Victoria. Layla, a 19-year-old from Sydney, began a solo Friday strike, sitting outside the Queen Victoria Building in George Street, holding a sign. It was intimidating, she said, ‘the way people look at you.’ After several weeks, two girls joined her and then a few more, which made it much easier. At the time of the interview, she had been there every Friday for 43 weeks.
Rosalie (19, Melbourne) had always wanted to become active but felt she didn’t know enough. When she heard about the November 2018 climate strike she went along. ‘I can’t really describe it properly but it’s this massive feeling of awe and power. Awe at the human spirit and how people love each other and will stand up for each other. That’s core to my being and I want to be part of that.’ She decided she had to learn more and began reading up on the science, including the daunting scientific paper ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene’, remarking, ‘Wow. We’re doomed.’ She had dedicated her life ‘to stopping the worst of the climate crisis.’
Tess (21), a university student from a conservative region of the Netherlands, set up a local Extinction Rebellion group with two friends. Her fellow students find the idea of civil disobedience disturbing. The common attitude in the Netherlands towards climate change is ‘Oh yeah, in the future we’ll have to raise the dykes.’
Instead of striking, Evelyn (18) organised an event with a speaker at her high school on the East coast. ‘It’s important in senior years not to miss classes.’ An Indigenous student, she had run a lot of environmental initiatives at the school and was ‘an influencer’. Ruben (22) from regional Victoria volunteered at an Indigenous environmental organisation and now speaks on behalf of Indigenous people at the strikes.
Chloe (13, NSW country town) joined the March 2019 school strike in Sydney at the suggestion of her mother. She decided to organise a school strike in her home town as part of the September action. Still in Year 6, she emailed all the schools in the district but received only one reply, from her principal, who wanted to speak with her. Arriving in his office, he said he couldn’t publicise the event at the school because of rules against ‘controversial issues.’ Nevertheless, she left sensing that he was encouraging her to go ahead.
At a 2018 climate protest in London, 17-year-old Lily from Hampshire noticed the power of art at protests. She spent months constructing a giant whale out of waste plastic, making it a project for her A-levels. Installed in an atrium at her school, the plastic whale became a talking point, moving some students to tears.
One of the conversations that left the deepest impression on me was with a group of four young activists from the South coast of NSW. Jack (13), Sara (16), Jasmine (15) and Jade (13) struck me as ‘battle-hardened’; all had experienced the horrific Black Summer fires at close hand. Students at their school had been burnt out or had frightening stories to tell of fleeing the inferno. And Black Summer came two years after disastrous fires that destroyed a local township and traumatised residents of the district.
The fires had a profound effect on them. ‘Probably the biggest wake-up call,’ said Jade (13), ‘would be when it’s reached the end and when we can’t stop it anymore, which is kind of happening right now, in a way.’ Speaking with raw emotion, Sara (16) added:
And with the fires, in the really apocalyptic moment … when you’re sitting inside in the middle of the day and the sky is just bright red, and the fires are way away, you’re just thinking is this the new normal? We have done so much, we have had extreme droughts and now we’re having crazy days when the sky is bright red and you go for a swim and there is ash everywhere and you think how can we possibly fix something that’s happened? How are people still denying this? This is literally what we’re living in. Our whole country was burning. For me personally, I can’t see past the fact that climate change caused something so massive.
Jack (13) spoke of the fearsome effect of the Black Summer fires.
It’s something no one ever expected. It’s not a good thing but it’s definitely awakening some people, but it’s also scaring away others because they don’t want to face the truth that this will be happening more. … A lot of people were dramatically scarred by [the 2018 fire] and then this came on again. It brought back things that people don’t want to … A lot of people lost a lot of things in the fires. For some that’s really, really scary and they just want to forget about bushfires. They don’t want to go to strikes if they are bushfire focused.
Being an activist
When students join School Strike for Climate or Fridays for Future, they may join a team for media outreach, protest organisation, lobbying, online activity and more, with activists moving between them. The organisations resist hierarchies and often change spokespersons.
Alexis (17) from Washington DC had been involved in Earth Day and Black Lives Matter. She became involved in Fridays for Future Digital, akin to a branch of Fridays for Future International, where her tasks include coordinating the Twitter account, recruiting new members and scheduling posts. She helps out too with ‘onboarding’, helping new people to integrate. Sofia (17, Berlin) coordinates the ‘linguistics team’ at FFFD, translating documents, posts and graphics. She also writes op eds for newspapers. She mentioned the ‘JEDI Team’—for Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity—which creates a welcoming environment and offers ‘mental support’.
Almost by definition, the teenagers who flood into groups organising strikes and protests have virtually no experience. ‘Young people learning how to run a functional decentralised organisation is a very big challenge,’ said Rosalie (19, Melbourne). ‘We were trying to figure out how to split things out.’ It’s mostly been learning-by-doing, although established green groups have provided advice on fund-raising, budgeting, liaising with the police and so on. Rosalie’s team was tasked with reaching out to unions, but ‘we didn’t know what a union was.’ As they acquired it, they passed their knowledge on to new activists and a ‘cycle of mentorship’ began.
Although our conversations were peppered with references to ‘the older generation’, who didn’t understand or didn’t care, the comments were more nuanced when I asked whether there’s a generational divide with older climate activists. Isla (18 Midlands) replied: ‘When we engage with the [established] climate networks, like Climate Action Network and Friends of the Earth, they are mostly retired people. You always feel you are not suited to that environment. I’d always prefer to be in a room of young people, rather than retired people.’
In Germany, said Hannah (21, Saxony), Fridays for Future works with Parents for the Future and Grandparents for the Future. ‘Older people are always thanking us younger people’, which can feel like a burden. And from Connecticut, Amy (17) told me that some activists in the United States are doing ‘intergenerational training’ where they learn how to work with allies and benefit from the experience of older activists. ‘So it’s about learning how to talk to them.’
Greta Thunberg is seen to be the face of the movement, said Jane (18, Warwickshire), but that has a downside because ‘a lot of the media see it as the Greta movement.’ Alexis (17, Washington DC) explained a difference of view in the movement.
‘She started Fridays for the Future but she doesn’t want to lead it because it’s a horizontal movement, which means everyone is at the same level. But there are definitely people who say she does have that platform and that following so she has an influence that can be really useful for uplifting similar movements.’
Franklin (18, New York) met Greta at the huge New York protest. ‘It is amazing to see how an introverted girl who has Asperger’s can conquer her disinterest in public speaking and interact with people and bring such an important cause into the spotlight.’ Some others, he said, want to exploit the movement for their own benefit, to increase their social clout. These ‘cloutivists’ aim to feature in the media as much as possible or use their leadership positions to get into university. [So Greta is the anti-cloutivist?] ‘Exactly.’
When asked how it feels to be involved in climate activism, the responses centre on the sense of empowerment that comes from devoting oneself to a global cause. Alexis (17, Washington DC) said of Fridays for Future Digital, ‘it really feels like I’m part of a family.’ ‘Once you join this movement, you’ll have friends for life.’ They are still kids, she says, and like to have fun, so they have movie nights, hold online birthday parties and play games through Zoom.
But the constant reminders of the dire situation take a toll.
‘Just doing something feels good,’ said Sofia (17, Berlin). ‘On the other hand, I feel like I’m constantly confronted with what’s going wrong in the world. … Being more informed can be emotionally stressful. But I would rather be informed and emotionally more stressed and actually be doing something, rather than just from time to time hear about something and say, “well that’s a pity”.’
For a street-based protest movement, the arrival of the coronavirus forced a rapid rethink. In the early months, enthusiasm was sustained by online campaigning. Alexis (17, Washington DC) noted that young people unable to attend street protests—because of disabilities or because they were prevented by their schools or parents—were able to get involved with FFFD. However, by mid-2020 the activists were becoming dispirited. Although initially hoping the pandemic would be a moment for people stop and reflect, for Layla (19, Sydney) it soon became apparent that many people are unable to make proper risk assessments even when ‘they might die tomorrow’ from a virus. What hope do we have for understanding long-term risks, she asked?
Science and its denial
No nation, it seems, has integrated climate science into school curriculums. Some mentioned that climate change had been discussed in geography lessons, but only in passing. Jane (18, Warwickshire) remarked, ‘my geography teacher was passionate about it.’ In Berlin, schools teach the basics, said Sofia (17), but that’s all. ‘We’re never taught why it’s so important.’ So she informed herself by reading and through Fridays for Future. In Britain, Isla (18, Midlands) learned a bit in physics and geography, but her knowledge mostly came from the BBC News, before she became an activist. Chloe (13, NSW country town), just out of primary school, first learned about global warming from her parents and from ABC Kids.
So the activists were largely self-taught. Some said their parents talked to them about it; some only realised the seriousness of it from speakers at protests; others took it upon themselves to read weighty scientific reports; and most said their knowledge expanded once they joined an activist group.
For the South coast activists the absence of climate science teaching was a sore point. ‘It’s because of the political views of the education system,’ said Sara (16). ‘All of the information and the texts are at least fifteen years old, which is ridiculous.’ Jasmine (15) said ‘My mum encouraged me to join the strike. … And I began researching the issue. I gave a couple of speeches too’. Jade (13) explained that her friends don’t talk about it and she doesn’t ask them. ‘When it comes up, we quickly move on to other topics.’
When I asked how they react to those who deny the science of climate change, ‘frustration’ was the word used most often. ‘It’s, it’s … so many things,’ Rosalie (19, Melbourne) exclaimed. ‘Comical, but also incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, when talking to deniers it’s a very strange experience. We will never change them, so we don’t focus on them. Yet it’s infuriating and legitimately dangerous because it’s part of what’s got us in this crisis.’
‘At school strikes, or a march on the street,’ said Jack (13, South coast), ‘there are always a couple of haters, who swear at you for no reason.’ At her regular Friday vigils, recalled Layla (19, Sydney), ‘Sometimes people come up to us and they’re quite angry. Then you have to laugh. But when they are not there it’s not funny at all. I struggle … .’ Lily (17, Hampshire) pointed out that, while student strikers are dismissed as angry, it’s the deniers attacking Greta who are the angry ones. Wrestling with her feelings, Isla (18, Midlands) said: ‘I hate deniers so much. … Deniers will not trust the science until it slaps them in the face, when it’s too late. People in the global South are dying, and things are only going to get worse. It worries me that people like that are in power.’
Franklin (18, New York) had sat next to a representative from oil company Shell who told him: ‘Climate change is fake, and an attempt by left-wing politicians to impose regulations on us.’ He found it ‘so frustrating. … I’m a moderate Republican or centrist so there’s a cold war between younger voters and older members of the Republican Party. But many Republicans are shifting towards climate action.’ Sofia (17, Berlin) was less optimistic, saying there’s no point trying to inform deniers: ‘There is a lack of education but there is no lack of information.’ Evelyn (18, East coast) had experience with ‘old white men’ on the local council who didn’t want to know; they only wanted to talk about money.
Asked about governments that say they take climate change seriously but don’t do much, Alexis (17, Washington DC) expressed a common sentiment: ‘That’s definitely one of the things that makes me super angry. When it’s a false promise its beyond disappointing, and we don’t have time for false promises.’ Sofia (17, Berlin) said she’s shocked by it: ‘Our politicians don’t understand the urgency of it and why there cannot be a compromise climate-wise.’ When Berlin’s temperature reached an unprecedented 42C, she said, many didn’t care: ‘OK, it’s getting warmer, I will just go to that lake.’
Around the world, conservative politicians and commentators have told the strikers they should stick to studying. Chloe (13, NSW country town) finds it ‘very disheartening to hear them say something like that after all the work we had done.’ The criticism made a lot of teenage activists angry and, she suggested, it was not helpful for kids already experiencing severe eco-anxiety. Rosalie (19, Melbourne) observed, ‘It’s where that teenage, high school ironic humour comes in handy, making fun of politicians, instead of just feeling bad about it.’
The conservative critics seem to have no understanding of how these young people see their futures. It’s not a throwaway line when students like Nick (18, Melbourne) say, ‘What’s the point of education if the world’s going down. Why study science and maths if there’ll be barely any ability to use them in a hothouse Earth and it’s all just about survival?’
Jack (13, South coast) acknowledges that fear of arrest scares some students away from protesting, but for others: ‘The more the government doesn’t want you to do it the more people want to do it.’ Sara (16, South coast) argued that they shouldn’t have to disobey to make their point.
‘Telling us to stay in schools is ridiculous, because what is the point of staying in school and learning about random stuff when the politicians are going to be dead and we’re going to be living in the world they’ve created. I love learning and I want to be at school and I’d love to not to have to be worrying about bigger things. But when they are not making any change at all it means that we have to. It’s not something that we can just ignore.’
In Berlin, Sofia (17) said the politicians ‘totally missed the point. We wanted people to talk about it, the school strikes. Not going to school gets way more attention, and that’s good.’ Layla (19, Sydney) described striking as ‘our lever.’ Franklin (18, New York) was thinking ahead: ‘If I conquer the ethical dilemma and have kids when the world is getting hotter and worse, and then I’m telling him or her that your dad was in school studying geography or biology or whatever, that’s something I could not bring myself to say and it will not live on my conscience’. ‘To be brutally honest,’ said Ruben (22, regional Victoria), ‘I think “fuck you”, the only way change happens is through extreme action, at times.’
Turmoil in schools
When asked what motivates school students to strike and attend a protest, Tess (21, Netherlands) said: ‘Many are just really furious that this is the world that is left behind for them.’ Anger is often mentioned but beneath it is fear. Sofia (17, Berlin) said student activism arises out of a feeling of helplessness, of wanting to do something. ‘A lot become apathetic,’ said Rosalie (19, Melbourne), ‘or they say they are paralysed by it. Many young people say they feel helpless for the future.’ The students care, said Ruben (22, regional Victoria), but it’s also true that ‘the climate movement is the thing that’s defining a time in history. … people think “Shit, I want to be part of that”.’
The catastrophic fires of Black Summer loomed large in Chloe’s mind (13, NSW country town). Many kids in rural and regional Australia are ‘in the front lines of the climate crisis,’ she said. ‘They were angry at the way the government handled it, with Morrison going to Hawaii and cutting RFS (NSW Rural Fire Service) funding.’ Echoing the sentiment, Louise (16, Sydney) said seeing the country in flames, houses destroyed, and a billion animals dead was ‘terrifying’. From western Sydney, Hugo (17) talked about the thick smoke that settled over Sydney, with many thinking ‘this is what the future could be like.’ Asked about the day the temperature reached 49.4C in western Sydney, he said people were shocked. They thought, ‘this could be the future. But then they turned on their air conditioners.’ He was forgiving: ‘People had to cope … protect themselves.’
Franklin (18, New York) spoke of the activists’ ‘sense of collectivism’ in a society where students are isolated on social media and focused on ‘their individual lives rather than the lives of others.’ When celebrities like Will Smith began publicly supporting the school strikes, ‘suddenly it became fashionable, it became chic to go to these climate protests.’
In the United States in March 2020, many school kids who attended gun control strikes attended the climate strike the next day, according to Alexis (17, Washington DC). ‘Once they went to a gun control strike people learned that they could apply their energy to climate change strikes too.’ Amy (17, Connecticut) said her first protest was in early 2018 after the Florida Parkland shooting. ‘Millions marched around gun control, so climate organisers said “Hey, we can organise around this too”.’
I was interested in how striking fits into the social milieu of schools. Is it seen as a cool thing to do, or is it frowned upon? Predictably, it depends. Lorenzo, a 17-year-old activist from a small town in northeast Italy, said that initially it was cool to join the protest, although many soon began to believe it was ‘a lost cause’. Tess (19, Netherlands) said that it’s become cooler but when she was at school three or four years earlier, she was the ‘weird person with opinions.’ ‘I wouldn’t open my mouth about it because it was a trade-off with my social status, friendships.’
At some schools, said Rosalie (19, Melbourne), ‘the jocks and the geeks and all the different cliques all understand there is a climate crisis and want to go to the strike. At other schools, they don’t understand it at all, it’s not cool, it doesn’t affect them. Some think it’s only a thing for inner city people … Even some of the teachers are science deniers!’
For Evelyn (18, East coast), activists at school are admired for ‘stepping up.’ In some schools, said Nick (18, Melbourne), the strike leaders hear ‘thank you for organising it. It was amazing.’ Elsewhere, said Louise (16, Sydney), the principal stands in the hallway trying to block kids from leaving. In 13-year-old Chloe’s country town, the school strike ‘was a joke for many’ and, when they saw the posters she and her dad had put up around the school, ‘it sparked a lot of conversation, which is good even if it’s bad conversation.’
Asked whether boys see protesting as an uncool or naff thing to do, Isla (18, Midlands) replied: ‘I think it’s seen as an effeminate thing to do, a kind of toxic masculinity. It’s messed up in many ways. I’d argue that yelling down a megaphone at a protest is more masculine …’. Alexis (17) said in her Washington DC school boys see protesting as uncool and are more interested in ‘their social influence.’ But from Berlin, Sofia (17) said it’s not uncool for boys to go to protests in Germany.
After a protest march in New York, said Franklin (18), a student stood up in class to say, ‘I feel isolated for not attending this protest.’ ‘It had become cool to attend and uncool not to go to the protests. It’s expected that all of us have an opinion on the matter and to be doing something. It’s seen as the ethical thing to do and if you don’t go to the protests then you are unethical and you’ll be called out, cancelled.’ [Is that a New York thing?] ‘Yes, in socially liberal cities.’
Anxiety and grief
Asking the student activists how they feel about the future elicited some of the most poignant and thoughtful comments. A tension emerged between feelings of helplessness, because it’s too late, and hope that something might change. Sounding upset, Isla (18, Midlands) summarised this inner conflict.
There are two different thought processes. There are people who don’t have much hope for the future … massive hopelessness. By the time our generation takes the reins it will be way past 2030. … That’s too late. … Yet … the more you show up you get that sense of hope. But will that showing up and acting early be enough to solve the climate crisis? I honestly don’t think so.
In his small town in northeast Italy, Lorenzo (17) admits he tries not to think about the future. From Berlin, Sofia (17) responded: ‘One thing that is really scary is that we can’t really imagine what it’s going to look like. It’s so big we can’t see its extent and its actual impact.’ Activists don’t like to think about the future, said Tess (19, Netherlands), ‘because it might paralyse us.’ She had spent several months in Australia, where climate activism is more vibrant, perhaps because extreme events are all too evident. ‘I spoke with a teacher at the Adani camp. She said: “I really want to address these topics in my class but I have to be so careful because my students are just so, so scared about the future”.’
Rosalie (19, Melbourne) was eloquent and worth quoting at length.
It’s really overwhelming for a lot of people. When you are a teenager and you are trying to figure out what the world even is and how you fit into it, you are already overwhelmed, separate to the climate crisis. On the top of that there is this massive, world-shattering crisis to comprehend. People are experiencing a lot of anxiety. …
I have a lot of friends that have talked about how it’s completely overwhelming and stops you doing things in ordinary life. One friend, who did a lot of research on climate change, she’s staying up to the early hours of the morning crying. Because she cares so much about people and the Earth and the future of this planet. And that destruction hurts a lot so she couldn’t sleep. So [and here she sighed deeply], it’s a lot of shit to be dumped on you when you’re just trying to find your way in the world and the world is falling apart around you.
My response to all of that, the epic level of the crisis, is I don’t go into thinking about all of the pain all over the world due to the climate crisis because it’s just too much to deal with. It’s really painful. So pushing that to the side and focussing on activism and solutions is what I try to do. But sometimes that doesn’t work and you’re just pushing your emotions down, these massive emotional things you’re dealing with, and then they jump back out, and blow up and you burn out and you can’t do anything, which I had at the start of this year. I’m still getting back from that. I mentally crashed; it’s so overwhelming it’s hard to push through. So it’s a difficult thing to deal with.
So for many young people, the comforting sense of a bright future has been taken away by climate change. Thinking about the future, said Sara (South coast, 16) is ‘just so scary because the government and the people who are in charge of our future are just playing with it. That’s scary for us.’ For Jade (South coast, 13), ‘I’m just so worried that I don’t really talk about it that much. But I think about it a lot.’
Sofia (17, Berlin) said she has had ‘anxiety issues’ and Nick (18, Melbourne) confessed to feeling depressed. He went on a lone hunger strike and became more depressed. He quoted Bob Brown who said that ‘depression is a very intelligent response.’ Commenting on the grieving workshops run by Extinction Rebellion, Tess (19, Netherlands) said: ‘Nothing is as strong as being vulnerable together.’
Some activists have ‘bad mental health issues,’ said Louise (16, Sydney). ‘It’s such a scary thing. It’s a domino effect—heating leads to sea-level rise leads to disasters leads to climate refugees and political unrest. … The more worried I get the more active I become.’ For Isla (18, Midlands), ‘There’s a massive sense of fighting for our life and fighting for our future. … For previous climate activists it’s always been a problem for the future. We are in the future now; there’s no turning back.’
School strike organising committees are alert to the mental health of activists. Chloe (13, NSW country town) spoke about School Strike’s wellbeing taskforce, which monitors burnout and urges those feeling overwhelmed to take a break. If needed, taskforce members take responsibility to ‘have the difficult conversations.’ Professional psychologists are on hand. National meetings have a wellbeing ‘check-in’ and the wellbeing team ‘uses a thing called Doughnut’ (the Resilience Doughnut helps children built inner resources to better face adversity).
For a few, conflict within the movement is distressing. As a ‘moderate Republican’, the outsider status of Franklin (18, New York) gives him an acute perspective.
It has taken a very heavy emotional toll on me. First, because of my personal political beliefs, I am often on edge with other climate activists. The vast majority, like 95 per cent, are at least sympathetic towards socialism, which I am hard line against, especially coming from a socialist country [China]. That’s put me into a lot of conflict. The movement is mostly teenagers and things can get out of hand.
It’s well known that taking action can help cope with anxiety and depression, so I asked the student activists about it. At her first protest, replied Tess (19, Netherlands), it was ‘such a relief and so healing to be in an environment where your emotions are recognised. And you’re not alone in having this big grief or frustration or anger or fury.’ Although ‘it’s all bad news,’ said Jane (18, Warwickshire), she commented on the happy atmosphere at protests. Jasmine (South coast, 15) put it this way: ‘It gets you out of your isolated feeling … You’re out with other people instead of being stuck by yourself with this internal struggle.’
Sara (South coast, 16) sees activism as a coping strategy: ‘I sometimes feel too overwhelmed. … It’s joining with a group, a crowd, then going online seeing thousands and thousands of people, you know that’s your global community. It’s a way of … not dealing with it.’ While agreeing that protest action is an antidote for anxiety and depression, Hugo (17, western Sydney) offered a note of caution: ‘if they act and nothing changes it can be off-putting.’ People think, ‘Why bother?’
From New York, Franklin (18) said that some critics of school strikes ‘say it’s a self-assuring loop, convincing them [the strikers] that change is going to happen and they keep telling themselves that. Each protest gives us an adrenalin boost and temporary euphoria before the next protest when the cycle continues.’
‘System change not climate change’ is a familiar slogan at protests. When asked how they interpreted ‘system change’ most interviewees spoke of the need for a system that places sustainability before corporate profits. They condemned a capitalist system in which fossil fuel corporations have too much sway and politicians don’t care or don’t care enough, sometimes referencing the meme that the top 100 companies are responsible for 70 per cent of emissions.
Some mentioned the radical socialist element within the movement, but there was little enthusiasm for overthrowing capitalism as such. As Isla (18, Midlands) put it, system change ‘means the end of capitalism as we know it. The end of the economy we have at the moment. But that doesn’t mean going into a communist society. It’s about overhauling the system so people living in it can be truly sustainable and carbon neutral.’
For Sofia (17, Berlin), ‘it’s nothing to do with changing democracy itself. It’s to do with reforming our economic system. … we don’t have the time to bring something new.’ In a thoughtful follow-up email, Layla (19, Sydney) suggested ‘system change’ has three distinct meanings in the movement—incorporating social justice into climate activism, changing the legal and political structures that enable fossil fuel production, and replacing capitalism.
Young activists often speak of the dire effects of a changing climate on the global South and the responsibility of the rich North for it. Yet the question of whether the movement should extend its demands to incorporate social justice advocacy, including Black Lives Matter, has been contentious. ‘There has been a lot of chaos in the youth climate movement lately over this,’ said Amy (17, Connecticut). Extinction Rebellion America wanted to focus on climate only. ‘It’s been toxic at times.’
Franklin (18, New York), who campaigned for moderate Republican Michael Bloomberg, told me of his experience of being cancelled.
It’s a long story. I was on a national call representing Fridays for the Future New York and there was discussion of a date change from April 24th to 22nd because some people wanted to observe Ramadan. I genuinely care about this. So I called some imams, both Sunni and Shia, and as many Muslim friends as I had, and asked their opinion. They all said “It’s okay to do so” [hold it on the 24th]. So I brought it up on the national call. I was labelled xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic. [Here he struggled.] So I was cancelled. It was the day before my birthday so when I woke up in the morning, I saw all my social media just packed with hate messages, calling me a racist [etc] … It’s traumatising because I never experienced that in my life before. Honestly, it’s something I don’t want to experience ever again.
When she was younger, Rosalie (19, Melbourne) found engagement with social media could be unpleasant because ‘people are very shaming and digging into the most minuscule micro-aggressions instead of looking at the larger picture.’ Layla (19, Sydney) noted that some wanted to bring in external political issues.
We try to keep that kind of conflict to a minimum, because we want to be fighting the real enemy. The only people I want to fight are the fossil fuel industries. I don’t see the point of anti-capitalists fighting with non-anti-capitalists; it only helps the fossil fuel industries. Personally, I’m not an anti-capitalist but for keeping our eyes on the real thing.
Indigenous activist Ruben (22, regional Victoria) brought a dose of reality. ‘I’m from a lower working-class family. … A lot of things happen to people from poorer backgrounds that most in the climate movement, who are mainly from wealthy backgrounds, don’t experience.’ A bricklayer before he went to university, Ruben took aim at the ‘political tribalism’ he sees there. ‘A lot of people on the far left in the youth climate movement try to shove their ideas down your throat.’ He is puzzled when these students from privileged backgrounds say, ‘white capitalism is bad’ and call for socialism. ‘Why do they want to change the system that benefits them?’
‘Strong leader girls’
Unlike older organisations, the leadership of the youth climate movement is dominated by girls and young women, yet when I asked the mostly female interviewees why they thought that was the case some said they hadn’t noticed or hadn’t really thought about it. For others, the explanation is unclear. ‘Maybe,’ Tess (19, Netherlands) laughed, ‘it’s an opportunity to fight against the patriarchy, and the old men in power.’
‘I think it comes down to the rise of the Me-too movement and women’s rights,’ suggested Franklin (18 New York). ‘So, subconsciously, we have been making way for people who are typically not heard for their voices to be heard. And that’s important.’ It’s not that the movement attracts more girls, said Hannah (21) from Saxony, but that the movement ‘puts women up front.’ For Layla (19, Sydney), ‘there is a thing about “strong leader girls” who don’t have the opportunity in a school situation.’ She suggested the messaging of the movement would be different if Greta were not female.
‘Somebody said in a lot of cultures women take on the emotional labour in the society,’ recalled Rosalie (19, Melbourne). ‘Maybe the licence to be more emotional lends itself to women getting more involved.’ Isla (18, Midlands) took up the same theme: ‘I think it’s mostly because women are traditionally more empathetic and look more towards the future. But it’s interesting, there is a massive divide. In the older movement it’s all white men over 60. It’s a weird divide and I can’t really explain it.’
For many young people, parenthood is a fraught topic. It’s not only emotionally charged but politically loaded because it can become mixed up with the history of restrictions on reproductive rights. Pondering the question can create inner turmoil.
‘I find it so bizarre, because at times I can feel so terrified’, said Jasmine (15, South coast). ‘How can the government have got to this point? And maybe it’s cruel to have children, even. But then at times we’re talking about how excited we are about going to uni and what we’ll do then. So there’s this weird disconnect. You’re not thinking about climate change when you are talking about the exciting future.’
The conundrum was upsetting for Lily (17, Hampshire) too. ‘I feel at the moment I am compartmentalising because I can see myself in twenty years having two kids, having a career, but then I see the world in twenty years as not being in a state to carry the next generation. I don’t know how I feel about that.’
‘I’m worried about it,’ replied Jack (13, South coast).‘I want to talk about it with people but I don’t want to be the one to bring up the subject. I want someone else to bring up the subject, because a lot of others feel that way. It’s like a really awkward topic that people want to talk about but at the same time it’s a thing that makes people uncomfortable.’
Rosalie (19, Melbourne) said that some activists say online that it would be cruel to expose a child to a doomed planet. Some say they will adopt. But shaming people is not productive. She herself would be hesitant to have a child. ‘I love kids and would love to have children,’ said Franklin (18, New York). ‘But I honestly don’t think it’s fair to have kids if the situation continues.’ When Amy (17, Connecticut) told her parents she was thinking about not having children, they became mad at her. ‘They’re pretty traditional.’
As I finish writing, I look out of the window at the familiar pair of magpies. She built a nest and laid her eggs. Now the two nestlings gape hungrily as the parents labour all day to keep them fed. They will soon fledge and several months later make their own way in the world, pairing and reproducing in their turn, renewing an age-old cycle. Should we draw any comfort from the ceaseless turning of nature’s wheel?
Hope. The theme had wound its way through the interviews, so I finished by putting directly this now banal question. ‘Hope,’ said Layla drily. ‘People talk about this endlessly. Should you have hope? Is hope helpful? Is it constructive? I don’t know.’ Isla laughed bitterly at the question that won’t go away. ‘My generation gives me hope but I’m not sure it will be enough.’ For Alexis, everyone tries to be optimistic, but always ‘in the back of our heads’ there’s a fear that ‘we will fail … we will end up with a future that’s unliveable.’