On Friday 15th February 2019 around 7,000 children and teenagers organised a #SchoolStrike4Climate. It has some lessons for us all.
In the run up to the day of action, the school strike was widely advertised on TV and radio. On the day itself, every news outlet gave sympathetic and widespread coverage. The government Minister responsible for energy policy, Claire Perry, gave her public endorsement. It was a children’s protest which had the blessing and active support of many well-educated parents, teachers and politicians.
So, what did the children and teenagers say in interviews? What did they write on their placards? What are they saying to us?
“The Planet Is Dying”
The protesting children projected a vision of an apocalyptic future. They are articulating the pessimism and fear of their parents, teachers and wider society. The relentless messages of extinction, pollution and environmental destruction reflects our lack of belief in human development or a vision for future progress. This fear is coalescing around ‘saving the planet’.
“You Are Destroying Our Future”
These children view the legacy of previous generations as a problem. They do not see achievement and progress, but regard modernisation as a problem. What most of us regard as the increasing benefits of civilisation are viewed as destructive and dangerous. These children fear what they are inheriting. Why are teachers and responsible adults encouraging children to view the achievements of their parents and grandparents as a danger? Are they not worried about sowing inter-generational conflict to achieve particular policy priorities? Mobilising young people against older people is a way to say ‘You’re history, we are the future’.
“Why should we bother with school if most adults ignore the educated people”
Certain adults are viewed as ‘the educated people’ and are on the side of the new generation – these people are their trusted guardians. Those ‘on the side of the planet’ can be trusted and anyone who challenges this perspective can be seen as self interested, uneducated or motivated by malign intention. As children make sense of the adult world, are they being encouraged to view ‘uneducated people’ as hostile and dangerous, which can only be made safe by ‘trusted’ people.
Children are being encouraged to say that adults are not protecting them and are failing to act. If adults can’t protect children from danger, they will fend for themselves. Are we not in danger of generating fear that they cannot trust the adult world to look after them? Protecting children is a moral responsibility. But, climate campaigners are both sowing fear and then presenting themselves with the moral authority of child protection.
So, are there any lessons can be drawn?
1. The political activists have found a new constituency
The ‘metropolitan elite’ (sorry, I can’t think of a better term to use) is disorientated by Brexit, Trump and populism. They sense that their appeal to the general population is evaporating and their control over hearts and minds is tenuous and fleeting. The old loyalty to political parties is disintegrating and the ‘elite’ feel unable to connect with the general public. They have now found a new constituency – in children. By representing children, they gain moral authority and their new constituency is dependant upon their leadership.
2. Emotion has totally replaced rational argument
Emotional appeals are replacing political discussion and debate. Protecting children is one of the strongest instincts we have. Using children to advance the climate agenda has a powerful appeal. We feel morally obliged to support it. Interestingly, it shows that ‘the establishment’ is unconsciously aware that rational appeals to adults are not working and they are falling back on emotional appeals via children.
3. Who to trust?
As we have seen in the post Brexit/Trump discussion about ‘fake news’ and ‘post truth’, adult politics is being associated with lies and disinformation. Young people have to figure out how they navigate their way through this – how to make sense of what is and isn’t true. One way is to encourage them to think, read and debate, another is to encourage them distrust everyone apart from those who are morally good. Those who ‘side with the planet’ can be trusted, those who do not are motivated by self-interest, malign motives or are uneducated.
4. Older generations are history
By resorting to the creation of inter-generational mistrust, it shows that ‘responsible adults are becoming reckless. How does spreading fear of a ‘burning planet’ amongst young people help prepare them for the future? Mobilising children in this way can have unpredictable and destructive consequences. It shows that many adults have lost a sense of themselves and their purpose and are happy to outsource their authority to people who are not yet adults.
So, what is to be done?
I think that we should appeal to positive side of young people protesting. We should appeal to their sense of agency and purpose. Many teenagers are intellectually curious and want to work things out for themselves. Everyone feels the need to fit in, but not necessarily follow the herd.
We should pose questions. Is this really true? Is this the only way of looking at it? What do other people say? Everything has a cost and a benefit, what are they? Where debate is closed down and one side are castigated and labelled, independent thinkers should ask why.
We should remember that ‘climate change’ is the one issue that ‘the establishment’ falls back on when all else appears to be lost. It’s the only issue around which they can agree at international conferences; it provides some moral certainty and opponents are easily be ostracised. Further, it provides a sense of collective purpose and a mission when there is a feeling that the world has lost its bearings.