Today sees the first UK-wide Youth Strike for Climate protest, with thousands of young people expected to skip school in protest at inaction on climate change. There have been a handful of individual strikes, but this one has been organised and has got people talking.
It’s a radical idea, started by Greta Thunberg last year. From her solo protest outside the Swedish parliament, school strikes and adults taking ‘fridays for the future‘ have gone international.
There’s something very powerful about children and teenagers taking political action in this way. It forces the debate onto the agenda because it overturns social conventions and raises difficult questions. There are the practical considerations for parents, teachers and headteachers as they work out if and how to support the action. Then there’s the symbolic value of children protesting against adult inaction – a failure in the basic duty of care.
Politicians ignore protests every day. The last time I was in Parliament Square, there were four different protests within a hundred yards. Climate change, a Kurdish rally, one anti-Brexit and one pro-Brexit (the latter featuring the least authentic protestors you’ll ever see chanting ‘Theresa May, open trade’). None of them got any kind of acknowledgement from politicians, and very little media attention.
The school strike is harder to ignore. It shouldn’t be happening. Children should be in school – everyone knows that, including the protestors themselves. The fact that they’re not forces us to ask why, and is their reason legitimate? In my opinion, it very much is. If there was a Luton action I would go and join in myself – even though as a self-employed person, I would be striking against myself.
As George Marshall describes in his book Don’t Even Think About It, one of the biggest obstacles to climate change action is “the collective social norm of silence.” We don’t talk about it. When it comes up, we shrug awkwardly and change the subject. School strikes are practically and psychologically disruptive in ways that break through that silence. Honest conversations about climate change will have occurred in thousands of homes this week. Teachers’ unions have had a difficult decision to make – we want to see young people politically engaged, but can we be seen to support their actions? The media have to pick an editorial line.
Like the teenagers who have seized the gun-control debate in the US with March for Our Lives, there is something deeply tragic about school strikes for the climate. It shouldn’t be necessary. It points an accusing finger at a society and an economy that has betrayed future generations and continues to do so. But if not now, when?
- There’s a global strike on March 15th.