Yesterday the world watched as children across the UK staged a mass classroom walk-out to march for climate justice.
It’s not the first time this has happened: protests led by children have recently stormed streets the world over, from Australia to Belgium to Germany. The trend took off last year, after 15-year-old Swedish activist Gretha Thunberg made headlines by calling out the hypocrisy of politicians and world leaders. “You say you love your children above all else”, she told them at a UN climate change summit, “and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes”.
Indeed, the initiative of Thunberg and other school-aged children has been lauded worldwide as inspirational. But for our generation, it’s also deeply humiliating.
Not only are we, the college-goers and recent graduates, being outshone by 12-year-olds: we are so paralysed by fear that we’ve let responsibility for our own futures, as well as theirs, fall on their shoulders.
It’s a global trend: Ireland also has its own clutch of young activists leading the climate justice charge, such as Flossie, who started organising local beach clean-ups when she was just 10 years old, and 14-year-old Dara McAnulty, a self-described conservationist who spoke powerfully at November’s Extinction Rebellion march.
This explosion of youth-led activism seems to have missed our generation by the skin of its teeth. Sure, people in their late teens and 20s care about climate justice more than their parents – enough, anyway, to buy KeepCups and ditch plastic straws. But these, as we know, are merely plasters to a gaping wound.
True urgency seems to have passed us by, and we’re caught between a rock and a hard place: between the comfort of denial modeled by an older generation stuck in their ways, and the dizzying change called for by radical teen activists.
Sure, people in their late teens and 20s care about climate justice more than their parents – enough, anyway, to buy KeepCups and ditch plastic straws
As Thunberg bluntly points out, the truism that we care for nothing more than for our children rings eerily hollow in a time when it’s clear that self-interest is, once again, winning the day.
As we inch closer to some kind of figurative climate doomsday, various generations can roughly calculate how much fallout from the impending crisis they’ll be around to witness. Our parents and grandparents may not have to put up with the worst of it, but students today are a frontier generation: we’re sitting at the cliff edge, too frightened to look down.
Obviously we should not overestimate children’s autonomy: child-led protests don’t spring up with zero adult input. Without the tacit approval of many teachers, for example, Friday’s walk-out couldn’t have happened on the scale that it did.
Education about the environment in schools has also improved – though some would argue it’s still inadequate – and it’s often parents who sow the seeds of activism in their children (this was not the case in Thunberg’s family, however: she was the one who convinced her parents to stop flying and to change their diet).
But the credit that older generations can take for the efforts of these children is still negligible. At the end of the day, there’s no excuse for co-opting children to make a movement happen when it should never have been their responsibility in the first place. The responsibility is ours – the ones who should know better – to set an example and protect younger people.
College students in particular have ample resources to build campaigns and demand change, yet we are being entirely eclipsed by activists several years our junior
College students in particular have ample resources to build campaigns and demand change, yet we are being entirely eclipsed by activists several years our junior.
These children’s protests may be inspiring, but it’s neither fair nor feasible to burden them with the weight of the world. If all else fails, their efforts should at least embarrass older people into action. It is, after all, unprecedented that children have been compelled to act on such a scale – and all because their parents and grandparents are too incapacitated by fear and self-interest to do it for them.
As for our generation, we teeter the tightrope. It’s up to us which side we choose.