Argument Clinic
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Argument Clinic

Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish parliament. Photo by Adam Johansson on Medium.

Repairing Broken Men

Will children save the world? Nope. But they might give adults the kick in the pants we need.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass

Last Friday afternoon, Senator Dianne Feinstein got a quick and hard lesson in child power. She stepped out for what she probably thought would be a benign meeting with a group of children with The Youth Vs. Apocalpyse Movement, an environmental advocacy organization, and things quickly got testy. The resulting video went viral, and the senior senator from California found herself on the defensive. The subject was the Green New Deal, and two competing resolutions being introduced in Congress: one from Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and one that Feinstein herself claims to be introducing sometime soon. Feinstein was dismissive of the one and supportive of her own. No surprise there. (And for the record, her proposal would have been a superb proposal ten years ago.)

What was surprising was how harshly she treated her young visitors, how quickly she went from a politician greeting constituents to an aggrieved schoolmarm lecturing children about how their opinion didn’t matter because they weren’t old enough to vote. Her office quickly put out a statement to try to mitigate the political damage as the video swept the web, and outraged constituents (myself included) flooded them with calls and emails and tweets.

The next Monday, a different group of young protesters appeared on Capitol Hill, at Sen. McConnell’s office. He ducked the meeting and had dozens of the protesters arrested.

Barely a month earlier, a 16-year old activist from Sweden named Greta Thunberg stood up at Davos, the annual meeting of the economic ultra-elite, and told a room full of adults that “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.” Starting with a one-person strike each Friday in Sweden just a few months ago, Thunberg has inspired an ever-broadening series of global strikes called Fridays for Future, in which students by the thousands skip class every Friday to protest adult inaction on climate havoc. On March 15th, strikes have been called worldwide, prompting an education minister in New South Wales, Australia, to warn that students and teachers will be punished if they participate. Thunberg replied on Twitter, “OK. We hear you. And we don’t care. Your statement belongs in a museum.”

The Juliana plaintiffs. Photo from Occupy.com, photographer unknown.

And since August 2015, a group of schoolkids have been plaintiffs in a lawsuit captioned Juliana v. United States, suing the government for its failure to prevent climate havoc. The government, both under Barack Obama and the current administration, has repeatedly tried to get the case dismissed, but it is presently set for a hearing by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this June. Kiran Oomenn, one of the young plaintiffs, noted in an interview that “You start learning about the weirder ways to throw out a case, because the government has tried those.” The plaintiffs, it should be noted, are not looking for money from the government — they are trying to force policy changes from an administration that is actively hostile to such policies. And under an Equal Protection claim in their Amended Complaint, their young age is precisely the point. They’re asserting, in precise legal language, that since the adults in the government won’t take the necessary actions to protect the climate for future generations, then it’s up to children to force the issue. The chances of their prevailing all the way through the currently-constituted Supreme Court are dim, to say the least, but that’s not stopping them.

As Mark Hertsgaard wrote recently in The Nation, “Traditionally, most big environmental groups were resolutely nonpartisan, focused on inside-the-Beltway policy fights and loathe to explicitly call out corporate interests, though Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth were exceptions. Now, an array of scrappy, youth-dominated grassroots groups are ready and eager to get in the face of the climate-wrecking industry, its executives and the politicians they bankroll.” These young people have the qualities of youth: fierce conviction, fierce emotion, fierce stubbornness. In a less fraught time they might be fiercely doing the frivolous things that young people are known for; now they have their sights set on an enormous goal, and they will not let anyone say nay.

All of which is great, yes? The kids will save us, the world will be rescued, everything will be set right and the globe will go on spinning, spinning. Stories will be told, songs will be sung, etc. All hail the world-saving youth of the early 2000s!

Except that that’s not true at all. As Greta Thunberg says, “We are too young to be able to do that. We don’t have time to wait for us to grow up and fix this in the future. The people who are in power now need to do this now.” Remember: the IPCC Report gave us 12 years to take the steps necessary to keep the planet to no more than 2℃ of warming, by which time a crusader who is currently 16 years old will be only 28. That’s barely old enough to join Congress, and still too young for the Senate, let alone the presidency. The kids of today can only goad us to action. If we are broken men and women, they cannot set us aside and take over; they must fix us, or fall with us. For all their fierceness, we adults wield all the levers of power. We’re the ones who must do or not do.

Besides. All those stories to be told, those songs to be sung? They would all talk about how children had to step up because the adults of their time had failed to do anything to save their world. And those shameful adults would be us.

What’s the opposite of the Greatest Generation? We would be that. We will be that, if we don’t listen to our better angels — our children — and get to work.

NEXT: We Are the Walrus

PREVIOUSLY: The Semiotics of Dishonesty

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If we can all learn how to argue a little better, even if it’s just with our crazy relatives at Thanksgiving, we might actually stand a chance of improving the world. We aim to explore argumentation from directions obvious and surprising, with high purpose and a sense of humor.

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Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs

Dramatists Guild member, Climate Reality activist. Words WILL save the world, dangit.