Youth is wasted on the young? Not this time around...
The 'snowflake generation' is a derogatory term that refers to today’s youth as being overly-sensitive, self-entitled, easily offended and politically correct. However, this overarching expression has been seriously challenged by recent events on the global stage where young people are standing up to solve problems inherited from the past. The popular epic series, Game of Thrones, really captures the mood, and yes, it is that dramatic. The young and surreptitious Arya Stark kills the ‘Night King’ – and his whole army of deadly ‘White Walkers’ collapses along with him. This symptomatic image echoes the zeitgeist of our civilization’s problematique: the root of the problem must be purged.
So, what is the essential cause of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and alarming extinction rates? Could it be - dare I say it - our extractive economic model that measures progress through the rising tide of dollar signs instead of dangerously rising temperatures? In recent months, more and more disquieting environmental reports have emerged, including the world’s leading climate scientists’ announcement that the world has a mere 12 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half to avoid total climate breakdown in the future. As Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts of this UN report warned: “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.” The growing awareness has seen an increase in eco-anxiety and the youth of today are even reconsidering the prospect of having children for fear of imparting life into a progressively precarious world. In the light of accelerating global warming, perhaps we should be calling young people the ‘Melting Snow’ generation instead?
Putting cynicism aside and rising up against the pervading business-as-usual culture are the resolute young voices that are speaking back to power amid the fear and confusion that often characterises our globalized world. Youth from all over the world are coming to realize that older generations are not taking the future of the planet seriously enough, so they are grabbing matters into their own hands. Recently a number of young leaders have stepped into the limelight, taking drastic action to support a livable planet and inspiring movements that can no longer be ignored.
One major uplifting figure is Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who became ‘eco-depressed’ when she learned about climate change at school. But then last year at age 15, she transformed her grief into action as she stood alone in protest for climate change awareness outside her national parliament. She quickly began inspiring prominent people and organisations, from the UN and the World Economic Forum, to Pope Francis and more importantly, millions of kids around the world. Courageously delivering succinct heartening speeches despite living with autism, Greta claims that she only speaks when she feels it to be necessary. And the world is listening. The teenager is gaining unprecedented media attention and has even made the iconic cover of May’s issue of Time magazine. Her defiant act has sparked the worldwide ‘School Strike for Climate’ whose first event on March 15th took place on a school day in 98 countries and mobilized 1.4 million kids to protest. In defense of criticism, Thunberg stands firm in her belief that the planetary crisis is infinitely more important than going to school, as she puts it:
‘Why should I be studying for a future than soon will be no more? When no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts in the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of the same school system clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society?’
Her #FridaysForFuture campaign encourages children to strike from school every Friday, even if it’s just for a short time. Greta insists on demonstrating her commitment to the environment until the Swedish government is aligned with the Paris Agreement, which she says could take years. On top of campaigning, Greta also walks her talk. Following the sentiments of acclaimed environmental journalist George Monbiot, who calls for systemic change, but admits that as individuals the biggest impact one can have is to switch to a plant-based diet and refrain from flying around in planes. Thunberg is doing both and inspiring others to do the same, even though the latter is a particularly tough one to swallow. Impressively, Swedes have dramatically increased their use of train journeys from 20% in 2018 to 37% this year due to the pressing climate debate and ‘flight shaming’ culture. According to the Swedish Railways, a one-way flight between Gottenberg and Stockholm creates the equivalent CO2 as 40,000 train journeys. Perhaps every country needs a Greta Thunberg to inspire this level of change?
When it comes to environmental innovation, the bold inventor Boyan Slat is a prominent youth tackling an issue that is on everyone’s lips these days: ocean plastic pollution. The young bright mind intimately encountered this issue while diving in Greece as a teenager and was appalled to encounter more plastic than fish. Inspired to action, the 18-year-old embarked on designing a mechanism that could passively extract tonnes of plastic waste out of the sea. Last year, Slat’s ambitious idea came to fruition with the first launch of the Ocean Cleanup project. The primary testing waters Slat targeted was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; the largest ocean gyre in the world. This initial attempt faced some unforeseen failures, but like most successful entrepreneurs, Slat sees these challenges as learning opportunities. After having grown from his mistakes and bettered his design, Slat and his team are heading for a second offshore expedition to the North Pacific this month!
Another force to be reckoned with recently is the UK-born Extinction Rebellion (XR), a movement that is sparking young people globally to make political demands on the grounds of environmental justice. The momentum picked up on April 15th, when these activists set up camp in central London in a profound and disruptive act of civil disobedience. The movement triggered followers across the world with 331 groups in 41 different countries, including a group recruiting exclusively young XR activists. One of them is Daze Aghaji, a 19 year-old woman who was inspired to run as one of the youngest ever members of the European Parliament. In her words: “I am trying to do something. To be part of a new politics part of the new world that I want to see.” Despite the numerous arrests, the movement is actually known for its nonviolent and creative tactics. On earth day, ER protesters staged a mass ‘die-in’ by playing dead across the floors of the Natural History Museum in London. In France, the movement spilled fake blood down the steps of the Trocadero palace esplanade to symbolize the daily death toll attributed to climate change destruction, species extinction, biodiversity loss, and ecological collapse.
On this side of the Atlantic, the youth-led Sunrise Movement is also picking up its pace. Starting with just 30 organisers in 2018, Sunrise has exploded in 2019 with the creation of over 200 centres across the U.S. Being proponents of the Green New Deal, the movement is calling for pragmatic political action around the intersectional issue of climate change and economic crisis. This small group was propelled into the mainstream by 29-year-old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who after being elected as New York City’s 14th district congresswoman, joined them at a protest to urge the Democratic party to put climate change high on its agenda. The political strategy behind this piece of legislation aims to address the environmental crisis by encouraging government divestment from fossil fuels, while driving investment into green energy infrastructure that create clean jobs. Successfully and with the help of millennial Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal has been backed by every major Democratic 2020 candidate.
The great scholar Jean Houston says that we are in the time of whole system transition and millennials are a key part of this shift. With growing consciousness of the serious challenges that threaten our very life on earth, who better to put a wrench in the works than courageous young people who have their whole future at stake?