5 things I learned from a 10-year-old climate activist

Last Friday, I spent the morning sitting in peaceful protest with Lilly Platt, a 10-year-old climate activist on a weekly school strike for the climate.

Lilly (@lillyspickup on Twitter), is Youth Ambassador for the Plastic Pollution Coalition and a Child Ambassador for HOW Global and World Cleanup Day. She’s drawing a lot of attention for her activism, which has shifted recently from being just about plastic pollution, to encompass the broader topic of climate breakdown.

“The purpose of the school striking is that governments will listen to us and that all governments will align with the Paris agreement,” she said. A big mission for a 10-year-old. But Lilly’s determined to be heard. “Kids should be allowed to have a voice, “ she said. “People need to listen.”

It was Lilly’s 8th week on strike, when I met her at 10am outside the town hall in Zeist, a town east of Utrecht, in the Netherlands. She’s striking in solidarity with fellow youth climate activist, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish student who started the #FridaysForFuture movement in August 2018.

The movement is growing fast. Kids all over the world are saying they are willing to sacrifice their education in order to draw attention to the issue of climate breakdown.

“You don’t have to be a grown up to do something, “Lilly explained. “Children are allowed to help the environment. If they don’t, they won’t have a future. They won’t have anything to go to school for.”

Joined by her mum, Eleanor, her grandfather, Jim, and fellow litter-picker, Jan, who goes by the name of Captain Zappoz, Lilly and I sat and talked, propping up our protest signs against the chilly November breeze. The occasional pedestrian or council worker smiled benignly as they passed, but mostly, we drew scant attention.

Me, Lilly, Captain Zappoz, and Grandpa Jim In Zeist.

The real reaction, as with so much of the activity that today’s youth is spearheading, happened later online.

It’s no doubt that this revolution, while not televised, is being broadcast.

Social media is amplifying social activism in a way we’ve never seen before. The savvy, passionate, and determined youth who are uploading images of their cries for change, are literally kickstarting global movement from their living rooms. They know the power of the internet and they’re using it.

But despite all of this, they are still kids.

I wanted to find out what makes one of them, a 10-year-old ready to skip school for the environment, tick.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Kids are baffled by our inaction and our excuses.

As we sat in the cold, Lilly shared stories of her weekly plastic-pick-up outings and how, once she began, she saw plastic discarded everywhere. She feels the same way about the reality of climate breakdown. Now that she knows about it, she can’t un-know it, and so it’s all she thinks about. She is baffled as to why adults don’t have the same reaction.

Greta Thunberg recently rejected a nomination for a children’s climate prize on the grounds that the event was planning to “fly kids in from all over the world” to the awards ceremony. She summed up her decision in a Twitter thread:

“Our generation will never be able to fly (among other things), other than for emergencies. Because the adult generations have used up all our carbon budget. If we are to take the IPCC’s latest report even the least bit serious (sic), we must immediately start acting as if we were in the crisis that we are in. … (F)rom a carbon budget perspective, the question is black or white. So I no longer wish to be one of the finalists.”

These kids are standing up for their convictions in an uncompromising way and they don’t understand why, when we know what carbon emissions are doing to ecosystems and our atmosphere, that we’re not doing more to stop it.

2. Kids know their own minds, but still need adult help.

Lilly’s mum and grandfather are there with her every week and were the ones who introduced Lilly to environmentalism in the first place. When asked how much of Lilly’s activism is self-motivated, Eleanor was adamant that her role is merely to support Lilly’s own initiatives, rather than to direct them. Educated in the Montessori system, Lilly’s always been encouraged to do things for herself.

“Lots of people told us that Lilly is plain-speaking and so she can use her voice to speak to politicians. I’m helping to guide her, but also making sure it’s done in the confines of reasonable activity because she’s only 10,” Eleanor said.

Lilly’s Mum secured permission from Lilly’s school to take a couple of hours each Friday to strike. She also helps to manage Lilly’s social media communications. In the face of online criticism over her encouragement of Lilly, Eleanor is quick to point out the double-standard that exists:

“If Lilly were a great footballer and we were bringing her everywhere and taking her out of school, everyone would be applauding us. But if it’s about the environment, people think ‘What’s the point?’”

3. Kids are hopeful for the future, but only if we act now.

I asked Lilly if she felt hopeful for the future and she said she does, but only if people start doing something about saving it now.

“If we don’t do anything, then our future is slowly fading,” she said.

I asked her, what she would do if she were put in charge of things.

“Climate change should be taught in all schools,” she said, without hesitation. “Always use reusable stuff. Never use plastic. That would be the rules of my universe.”

Listening to Lilly talk about climate change, it’s clear she doesn’t have a full grasp of the science or the systems change required to keep the emissions below the targets set out in the Paris agreement. But it is clear that she can see there is something broken that needs to fixed. And it worries her that we’re not fixing it fast enough.

4. Kids are immediate, and all about action.

Lilly decided to participate in the school strike after seeing a single online video of Greta Thunberg striking. “I thought: okay, I have to do this,” she said. The cause was something she already believed in, and that was enough for her to act herself.

Lilly striking with Greta Thunberg (Image from Lill’s Twitter page)

When I first reached out to Lilly, she invited me to join her on strike the very next day. With work and parenting commitments to consider, it took me two weeks before I could schedule the time to sit with her. But I remember being struck by her immediacy. I wanted to come, so in her eyes, there was no time to waste.

5. Kids (also) just want to have fun.

Lilly told me about the genesis of her interest in environmentalism, watching her mum speak out against a proposed factory that would be burning wood and creating dangerous particulate emissions in the area.

For Lilly, the most exciting part about participating was be allowed to stay up late to attend the meeting. “Until midnight!” she said with glee.

Lilly is that she is a determined, intelligent, well-supported child, who is just responding to what’s around her — both in her immediate midst and the wider world. The adults in her life value defending the environment, so she has learned to value it too. She sees young people standing up to be heard, so she has decided to be heard too.

But listening to her talk about her visit to Norway to speak at the Plastic Whale Convention, and meeting Greta Thunberg for the first time, and seeing her reaction to the scones I brought to keep us all going… I was struck by the fact that she is also just a little girl wanting to have fun and look forward to a bright future.

Surely the least we could do is stop resting on our collective laurels and provide that for her?

MEGAN HERBERT is the author/illustrator of award-winning climate change kids’ book, The Tantrum That Saved The World, Director of World Saving Books, and a public speaker on the subject of effective climate communication and how to talk to children about climate change.