It was a trenchant critique, and drew attention to our threatened social climate.
I joined the global student strike march in New York City last week, and then cringed at the thrust of much of the news and elected leader portrayals of it. That thrust emphasized its poignancy rather than its potential political muscle, a congratulatory but condescending recognition of its civic-mindedness but not engagement with its blistering shaming of both abused, and underused, power, and grateful expressions to youth for showing cause for hope that a more responsible next generation will safeguard the future rather than seeing and directly facing the anger and fragility of hope about that future.
But Greta Thunberg gave cogent voice to my frustration in her blunt and unwavering voice directed angrily at the assembled political leadership of the planet at the UN Global Climate Summit three days later: “You all come to us young people for hope?… How dare you.”
The strike, and the overall voice and mobilization of youth on this issue, is serious stuff substantively, tactically, and culturally. It should be treated that way. It showed in glaring contrast how far adults have fallen short in all those areas and why — obscenely — it has to be our children, and not the world’s parents, striking… which by the way should be done, continuously, until credible action happens.
Substantively, the strike and youth movement on climate put front and center unabashed truth-telling, especially around the urgency and inevitability of this crisis, as well as its catastrophic, including some already inevitable, consequences. Truth telling, everywhere by everyone, of this sort is essential for change. The muddled, soft-pedaled, fragmented, messaging, let alone denial (and purposeful misinformation), by leading institutions for decades, and between most of us with each other, is not.
Tactically, the strikes also shared lessons. Collective organized mass action not only can apply pressure and draw attention, it can get stuff done. Research indicates people are more likely to join and act on these environmental threats when offered tangible solutions to put into practice, and familiar local identities and social ties to fall back on to do it. And examples of local, citizen-led action as a way to not only advocate and protest, but to implement and actually put into place proven solutions — changes to food markets, energy sources, economic transitions from carbon-based activity, etc — are growing.
The strikes were a summary expression of a lot of other activity underneath: students organizing around the world pushing curricula, engaging opportunities for concrete change and solutions in their neighborhoods, etc. The lesson here is that such practical action can grow and flourish along with political action.
Imagine such efforts, a massive investment in a civic participation in local, ecological transition problem-solving, “climate ground-game,” adding needed bandwidth to accelerate change. Somewhere in the conversation on bold policy moves and the prospect of a Green New Deal should be resources and tools that enable all of us to follow where our kids are leading us, to act boldly, and together, as defiant voices, but also as hands-on implementers.
And finally, culturally, that “acting together” aspect is crucial. I admit it is poignant, but it is also insightful. Even if a wave of public support for aggressive policies on climate bears fruit in the next few years, there are already enough emissions in the air and oceans to lock in drastic changes to life on earth perhaps for millennia. So whatever happens, striking students are sure to be among the first of too many successive generations to witness the rapid loss, and inhabitability, of much of the earth, and a horizon of mostly foreshortened possibility.
Today’s youth are among the first wave of the faces and sounds of what it is like to live with the suffocating and relentless narrowing of a human future. How do whole generations emotionally face and endure that? They know this is in front of them and are sharing it. The rest of us need to listen. A corrosive loss of hope in an arc of human opportunity by youth across the world sets up a generational divide that can roil societies. What consequences will result as the fraying of intergenerational connections and social fabric is tested? A gulf in experience of despair can drive fault lines at a time where cultivating strong bonds and collective efficacy are needed more than ever.
Youth action draws attention to this looming emotional and cultural crisis. It is a call to safeguard and rebuild the social climate humans need to thrive as well as the environmental one, and the vulnerability of the human experience and global psyche to sustain not just a future, but a humane one. All the more importance tactically then for spreading elements of a — cross generational — practical, implementing, citizen-led, ground game at scale, which at the same time builds the social trust, emotional resilience, and culture change needed to move solutions as much as we can, and endure what is to come as best as we can.
The student strike was a profound event, not just a poignant plea. It showed the face of a new human future, a marker of potentially serious challenges across generations to the social contract and the place of civic muscle in shaping our world, as well as an alarm bell to face up to a significant challenge to the human psyche heading our way. The student strikers had much to say. We should listen to it all.