School climate strikes: What next for the latest generation of activists?

by | Feb 22, 2019 | All posts, Collective action and social movements | 0 comments

Students took to the streets across the UK.

In Manchester, there were fine speeches. In London, there were several arrests, with messages of support from various politicians and commentators,  who noted the attacks on the children were part of a pattern of ‘gaslighting’. Theresa May was not so impressed. Before the day there was some breathless coverage which makes the good point that the school strikes so far have been led by young women. It all creates problems for head teachers who have been urging students to be active citizens. What seems to be lost is that, on environmental concern, we have we been here before many times, albeit without co-ordinated school strikes.

The first big global wave of ecological concern occurred between 1968 to 1972 involved fears of overpopulation, air quality, water pollution and the extinction of species. Students mobilised. The wave peaked with the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.

A decade and a half later another global wave of protest took place (1986 to 1992). It began with concerns over the ozone hole and Amazonian deforestation and then was joined by new fears of climate change – then known as the ‘greenhouse effect’. That wave peaked with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which sought to tackle both climate change and biodiversity. Just as the founder of the current school climate strike movement, Greta Thurnberg addressed world leaders at the COP24 climate conference last December, Rio was addressed by a passionate and articulate young woman representing “ECO” – the Environmental Children’s Organization.

From 2006 to 2010 there was another, climate specific wave of protest, beginning with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary, and groups like Camp for Climate Action in the UK.  It climaxed (or fizzled out) with the Copenhagen meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This wave saw the creation of various “Youth Climate Coalition” organisations in Australia and the UK.

In academic terminology, these periods of concern and abeyance are known as the “Issue Attention Cycles”.

Where does this wave come from?

This latest wave of climate action has emerged in 2018, in the shape of Extinction Rebellion and its cousin/inverse the Gilets Jaunes. Earlier in the year Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg began her solo “school strike” in Stockholm. More or less simultaneously activists in the USA launched the “Zero Hour” youth climate march.

Alongside this activism, the IPCC released its report on what it would take to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, and Mother Nature has lent a hand with blisteringly hot summers in the UK, California and (more recently) Australia. The scene appears to be set for another wave but unlike the others, the climate-induced disasters will probably keep coming, perhaps making this wave more long-lasting.

What next?

What goes up must come down – the students will find that it is very hard to sustain emotional and physical mobilisation at a high pitch for a prolonged period. Right now this issue is where the Parkland Shooting protests were last year – newsworthy, but the media caravan does inevitably move on.

That has consequences: when protests and actions stop getting the same amount of attention, and it seems that momentum is stalling, internal disagreements as to what is the best way forward, beyond a cycle of marches and symbolic strikes, will emerge and will need to be managed skillfully. Some will want to work “within the system” and get invited onto advisory panels and into consultative processes (though, they may not be). Others will have to get on with real life (university, paying the rent, working on, ah, zero-hour contracts).

On one front, the young are lucky – it is hard to see a repeat of the direct infiltration and “strategic incapacitation” of movements by undercover police that a previous generation of environmental activists endured. But of course, the young’s addiction to social media offers virtually limitless surveillance possibilities.

One possibility is the attempt to discredit and demoralise those who seem vulnerable – what climate scientist Michael Mann dubbed the Serengeti Strategy. Recently Greta Thunberg took time to address some of the rumours being circulated about her. And hopefully, it will never come to the kind of bloody repression that black South African students suffered in 1976 when they went on school strike over being taught in Afrikaans.

The POG problem

Then there is the  POG problem—“piss off grandpa/grandma”.  I don’t think that David Bowie was right when he sang that “These children that you spit on as they try to change their lives, are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware what they’re going through.” I think there are things we oldies can do, but before offering advice to the young, we have to ask ourselves, why should they listen to us? What credibility do “oldies” (anyone over the age of 30, who should not be trusted) have anyway. We’ve known about the problem and either done nothing or done ineffective things. Perhaps the young are right to feel betrayed by older generations?

So, I think the first thing is an enormous apology and expression of humility “We’re really sorry that we have let this get worse and worse, and that we’ve left you with such a horrendously wicked set of problems”.

My top four pieces of (unsolicited) advice, based on both my activism and my time in academia, are as follows (see here for a longer list of unsolicited mansplainy advice).  

  • Be aware of everyone’s emotions in this.
  • Your parents are probably wrestling with fear (aren’t we all?) and guilt for not having sorted this out before you had to. Fear and guilt can make people oscillate from action to inaction, pessimism to optimism.
  • The traditional repertoires of social “movement” activity – marches, petitions, protests, camps –  have a short shelf life. The media gets bored and stop reporting. Meanwhile, those in power learn how to cope with the pressure.  Be very careful about getting drawn into the Big Marches in London syndrome. You’re going to need to innovate, repeatedly.
  • Even though time is short, this is still a marathon, not a sprint.
  • It is crucial to understand the difference between movement-building and mobilising, and that these are not the same thing, and sometimes exist in tension with each other.

Reader, what would you say? How should we offer advice, when, to who, about what?

A version of this blog post appeared on The Conversation.

Marc Hudson has recently completed a PhD on incumbent resistance to carbon pricing in Australia between 1989 and 2011. He has written frequently for The Conversation and his articles in the journals Environmental Politics, Energy Research & Social Science and Technology in Society have explored Australian climate and energy politics, and ‘aviviocracy’. He is currently teaching and researching at the University of Manchester.