Climate activism is learning

Abel Harvie-Clark says if you think youth strikes went away, think again

The climate strikes are back. After a pandemic-induced hiatus forced the monthly demonstrations online, and some internal rejigging, September 24th saw hundreds of thousands of school students on the streets around the globe, calling out inaction on climate change and making the demand to ‘Uproot the System’. Over 50 strikes took place in the UK, from London to Ullapool, pointing towards the particular pressure that needs to be applied on the Conservative government this year. There is an onus to provide at least some kind of initiative as hosts of COP26, the UN’s climate talks taking place in Glasgow. Further, there is a huge responsibility in the hands of countries like the UK to acknowledge and act on the massive historic responsibility this country has for ecological violence. Britain’s contemporary position in supply chains and international finance restricts much of the Global South’s ability to transition away from fossil fuels: climate reparations and debt cancellation are not only overdue, but vital for our shared ecological future.

The international connections and awareness between young people in the climate strike movement have helped shape this consciousness – an example of the key perspectives that we youth are bringing to the ecological movement. Striking in synchrony with activists on the frontlines of climate breakdown – those facing forest fires, droughts, killer heatwaves and the like – shines a light of urgency on the situation right here. Unlike those in positions of power, we have a full lifetime ahead of us, one that will be dominated to a large extent by dealing with the fallout from decisions made now. Even if we somehow stopped emitting fossil fuels overnight, there is already no shortage of ecological damage and global overheating to contend with. But the difference between that scenario, and the one that our governments have us headed towards (3 degrees or more of global temperature rises), is far from trivial. 

Of course, this is not a new problem: we can look back at a series of historical patterns within which we now find ourselves. Looking back 500 years, we can identify the ‘plantationocene’ as a foundation of the social ecological exploitation and colonial extraction that gave rise to the capitalist system, integral to the metabolic rift that is destroying Earth as a liveable planet. Looking back to our parents’ generation, we discover the recent collective memory of the miners’ strike and defeat – still a traumatic warning against unjust industrial transitions.

But our generation is not stuck in the false dichotomy of ‘jobs or climate’ that many try and push. Our generational experience has taught us far more: to see climate not as a single issue campaign, but another reason why we must uproot the system. We grew up through neoliberalism and global financial collapse, with zero-hour contracts as the norm, and Black Lives Matter inspiring us to mobilise for change but reminding us how far we have to go. It is plain to see that when crisis hits, our current system passes on that burden to the poorest, the most discriminated, the powerless, the oppressed. When we come to terms with the fact that climate crisis is already here, we realise that our fight against it is also the fight of the poor, the discriminated and the oppressed.

When Tory ministers told us back in 2019 that instead of climate striking we should make the most of our (entirely insufficient) education, we painted our placards to read “activism is learning”. We could obviously tell this then, but my experience since has only proved the point further. Powerful as the climate strike demonstrations are, their impact does not end there. In fact, one of the most significant things climate strikes have done is prepare a generation for a lifetime of struggle ahead.

At an immediate level we see this in those who were younger and perhaps less confident in 2019 now fiercely taking the lead in the re-emergence of climate strikes. The experience of striking has also opened our minds to an essential form of direct action that some thought those born in 21st century Britain may have forgotten. This experience was taken by climate strikers to university, where many were instrumental in setting up rent strike campaigns – a continuation of young people’s political action.

A powerful alliance is forming too between climate strikers and the reviving working class strike movement. The London branch of the UK student climate network showed their solidarity at the picket line of workers at the environmentally critical Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy, and many young climate activists were founding signatories on this statement, calling for the repeal of all anti-trade union laws so that workers can strike for climate justice.

The force and leverage of striking offers a vision of hope and reclaiming agency, out of the despair of climate doom. The next climate strike in the UK will take place today, the 5th November, to coincide with the COP talks, with a day of workers action the following day. Be there – be part of the fight for climate justice.

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